PFAS in Food Packaging: Updates on New and Proposed Legislation in the U.S. and Abroad

Posted on Behalf of  Jillian Parker

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a man-made class of between 4,000 and 5,000 compounds that are used for a wide variety of industrial and commercial applications due to their unique surfactant properties (FDA, 2019). For example, PFAS are often applied to food contact papers (e.g., microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, pizza box liners, and candy wrappers) and textiles to enhance water, grease, and soil repellency (ATSDR, 2018). Due to their chemical structure, PFAS are resistant to degradation and thus persist in the environment and human body (ATSDR, 2018). While PFAS have been identified as drinking water contaminants which arise from industrial releases and the use of firefighting foam, PFAS have recently been identified in compostable fiber bowls used at fast casual dining and other restaurants (New Food Economy, 2019). This report indicated that high levels of fluorine found in fiber bowls from 14 restaurant locations across New York City were due to treatment with PFAS compounds, although it is unclear which PFAS species are present (New Food Economy, 2019). While older generation PFAS chemicals including PFOA and PFOS have been linked to a range of adverse health outcomes (e.g., increased cholesterol levels, low infant birth weights, and immune system effects), these have been mostly phased out of production in the United States, and the potential health effects of newer PFAS chemicals have not been fully evaluated (EPA, 2019)

As of 2017, around 90 PFAS monomers and polymers, most of which are categorized as “short-chain” PFAS (i.e., less than 8 carbon atoms in length), were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in packaging, as non-stick coatings on cookware, and on food processing equipment (FDA, 2019Schaider et al., 2017). As part of this approval process, the FDA confirms that there is limited transfer of PFAS from the packaging to the food in order to ensure safe levels of exposure (FDA, 2019).  They continue to work alongside other federal agencies to authorize the use of new PFAS compounds in food packaging and review scientific information as it becomes available. The FDA recently released a statement detailing the results of their analysis of PFAS in foods typically eaten by Americans (FDA Statement, 2019). Although details of the analysis were limited, no PFAS compounds were detected in the majority of food samples that were tested and the low levels present in 14 out of 91 samples were deemed unlikely to be a health concern (FDA Statement, 2019). These results indicated that, if present, significant amounts of PFAS in the packaging may not transfer to food, although it was unclear if the FDA specifically tested compostable fiber bowls as part of this analysis or if these containers will be tested in the future. Additionally, the report identifying PFAS in compostable bowls has been scrutinized for its choice in methodology, as fluorine content may not always indicate the presence of PFAS (USA Today, 2019). Thus, many uncertainties regarding the presence, transferability, and implications of PFAS in food packaging remain. 

In response to these concerns of potential health effects, Denmark became the first country to propose a ban on the use of PFAS in cardboard and paper food packaging (Bloomberg 2019). The proposed law is currently under review and expected to take effect in July 2020. Several states within the U.S. have proposed or enacted similar legislation. In 2018, Washington State passed a law that prohibits all PFAS in paper food packaging (Department of Ecology State of Washington, 2018). The ban is scheduled to take effect in January 2022, but requires that Washington Department of Ecology first identify safer alternative chemicals (Department of Ecology State of Washington, 2018). The State of Maine passed a similar law in June 2019, which prohibits the intentional use of PFAS in food packaging if safer alternatives, which must be identified by the Maine Department of Environmental Projection are available (State of Maine Legislature, 2019). The law is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2022 or two years following the identification of a safer alternative. Additionally, legislators in at least eight other states, including Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, have proposed similar legislation to ban or restrict PFAS in food packaging (Safer States, 2019). While the timeline and details of federal and state regulatory actions are unclear, more jurisdictions may follow suit and place bans on the use of PFAS in food packaging or PFAS-containing recycled materials given their persistence and potential human health implications.

Cardno ChemRisk scientists have extensive professional experience evaluating the possible hazards posed by chemicals, including PFAS. If you would like more information on Cardno ChemRisk's capabilities, or have any further questions regarding this topic, please contact Dr. Jillian Parker.